An Excerpt from Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi

Hello readers!  I am currently on my maternity leave spending some quality time (and little sleep) with my brand new son! Enjoy this guest post from today’s featured author!


Journalist and educator Simran Sethi’s new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, is about the rich history—and uncertain future—of what we eat. The book traverses six continents to uncover the loss of biodiversity, told through an exploration of the senses and the stories of bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer. This excerpt from Wine, highlights the impacts of climate change on wine grapes, and the need for conservation of diverse grape varieties in order to preserve our most cherished varietals.


Snow Barlow is a 70-year-old renaissance man: a former professor of horticulture and viticulture at the University of Melbourne in Australia, the current chairman of the Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge and Innovation and a winemaker. In our first interview—over handmade Italian pasta on Lygon Street in the heart of Melbourne’s Little Italy—he held up a glass of wine and proclaimed, “Let’s be like a grape.” I was game.

When Snow talks, he leans in close, almost as if he’s sharing a secret. This makes even the most mind-numbing data seem intimate and interesting. “If it’s too cold,” he began, “you never quite make it to maturity. If it’s too hot, you mature too fast. There’s a lot of sugar in grapes, and the delicate flavor compounds need time to accumulate. When the plant is grown in the right place—the climate is right, the soil is right—it expresses the characteristics that make it unique. Taste is manufactured in the plant, not the soil, but the soil is the starting point. … It influences the plant to produce certain compounds that are delicious.”

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

Snow said this to me during the summer of 2014—at that point, the hottest year in recorded history. Much of his research has focused on how climate change impacts the growth of grapes and the taste of wine. “The reason we go to great lengths to find the exact place to grow grapes,” he explained, “is because only certain places express the full genetic potential of exquisite flavors.” But now those places are changing, and we don’t know exactly where the best flavors will end up.

Climate change is changing terroir.

Some are placing bets on a flourishing industry in places like England and China. But with the introduction of new clones and genetically engineered rootstocks and yeasts, anything seems possible—including wines from Florida and Thailand.

Industrial wines are already manipulated and tweaked: “For wines outside of the best quality,” wine expert Caleb Taft explained, “there will continue to be options to fix things in the cellar, like adding acid to overripe grapes. The ordinary quality level will remain, as will the sort of bulk wine level for supermarkets.” But the good stuff will change.

“The highest quality wine production will push north,” Caleb added. “Some of the best wines are made on the edge of viability, like in the Sonoma Coast, Champagne and Burgundy. It’s probably not too hard to imagine Burgundy, say, becoming an ideal location for Cabernet Sauvignon. The sort of idealized marriage between grape and land may never be the same again. It may take a long time to get grapevines adjusted and acclimatized to their new homes, the way that vines in Europe have adapted [over centuries] to their native and adoptive locales.”

When I shared Caleb’s insights with Snow, he agreed. “We’re still being like a grape,” he said with a wink as we tucked into our second pasta lunch. “Water is the currency of the grape—and of climate change. The life cycle of the grape is impacted by the availability of water and by temperature. Generally speaking, this means climate change impacts the quality rather than the productivity of grapes. It makes some of the wines we love taste differently because grape ripening is forced into hotter windows.”

I took a long sip of Pinot Gris and tried to comprehend what that meant. Snow leaned in. “Hotter climates are usually deleterious to fruit composition, Simran. When the climate is too hot, the grapes can’t achieve their full genetic expression.” The grapes can’t achieve their full grapey glory—for size, yield, duration of season or for taste. “Climate change will change the way people drink,” Snow continued. “Our wines won’t just move north; they will lose flavor. The old, stressed vines that make the best wine will transform—or disappear.”

These changes are already being felt in wine regions around the world. The droughts of

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ingrid Taylar

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ingrid Taylar

2013 and 2014, for example, have been the driest sea- sons ever documented in some parts of California. It isn’t clear exactly how this will impact grape harvests, but, thus far, the agricultural sector as a whole—California grows nearly half of America’s domestic fruits, nuts and vegetables—has lost $1.5 billion due to drought and other weather-related challenges.

Globally, a warming planet will bring more opportunities to grow food in colder places; however, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reaffirms that the world as a whole will experience more of food loss than gain.

Although we don’t know exactly what will happen, we do know agriculture is changing and will continue to change. It will impact the biodiversity in wine for worse and, in some instances, for better. This is why we need to grow a diversity of grapes, as well as other crops. Diversity enables us to respond to whatever circumstances arise; it makes us more resilient.

“The genetic base for grapes is quite narrow,” Snow said during our final lunch. “It’s a bit like a pyramid. And there are good, industrial reasons for that pyramid being pointy, like high yield and stress resistance. We simply can’t improve hundreds of varieties.”

Indeed, but the challenge is that we don’t know which varieties that aren’t being grown widely will be important further down the line. We don’t know which ones will have greater drought tolerance or resistance to pests or disease. Think back to when the world was trying to grapple with phylloxera (the disease that crippled the French wine industry in the 1860s). Most times, we don’t know what to guard against until it happens.

As we see with California’s ongoing drought, there’s still a lot to learn. “We don’t understand which genes allow a plant to read the environmental cues of seasons, temperature and day length,” Snow explained. “We don’t understand, for the most part, how these genes stimulate a plant to flower, or to ripen, and what chemical signals they use to do this.” He paused and threw up his hands. “And then at the end of the season, how do they sense changes in day length and temperature to know when to go dormant to avoid being injured by the first freeze? These are all things we have to understand to build the capacity for resistance to climate change.”

We also don’t know what we’ll grow to love, such as the emerging darling variety Trousseau Gris. The grape was planted throughout California in the early 20th century. However, by the 1980s, it began to disappear. Now, in North America, the only commercially viable plot of Trousseau Gris is located on 10 acres in the Russian River Valley, a cool, rain-fed area better known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

If those grapes, or any other crops, aren’t cultivated on farms or accessible and identifiable in the wild, then we lose them.

That is, unless we’ve deemed them worth saving.


The piece above is excerpted from Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Copyright © 2015 by Preeti S. Sethi. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.